When my young adult son asked me about loneliness a few months ago, I was taken aback. His question was very direct: When I was in my twenties and just starting out, did I feel alone?
The issue of loneliness is one the media addresses from time to time, and one I’ve written about over the years. And in answer to my son’s question — yes, I was extremely lonely in my twenties — my early twenties especially.
I had taken my first job hundreds of miles away from home. I was living in a first apartment in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a highway. I was new to the type of work I was doing and put in long hours with a group of people I felt uneasy with. (Nice enough, but many were former military and 20 years my senior.)
I kept my head down and stayed busy at the job, but I remember feeling very alone for some time. And I was equally lonely in the next few years, though once I changed jobs, I felt more comfortable with my co-workers. Still, making friends was a problem; many of my fellow employees were married (I was single), and our lifestyles were dramatically different.
When my son was asking about my personal experience, he was employed in his first post-college full-time position. He had relocated hundreds of miles. He found himself in the middle of nowhere. (Sound familiar?) He didn’t have a roommate, he was renting a room (not an apartment he could make his own), and he — like me, all those years before — felt isolated.
I understood his isolation and the dissonance with his surroundings. I understood the challenges of being unable to do something as simple as spontaneously getting out with friends. I understood that his loneliness was inevitable.
He has since changed his situation, and things are looking up.
I happened upon a Christian Science Monitor article that is timely for me, not only in light of observing how quickly my son’s life has improved but for any of us who pass in and out of lonely times for various reasons. “Understanding Loneliness” reminds us that the ache to connect to others often hits a sort of tipping point. If we’re fortunate, that tipping point nudges us out of our comfort zone — even the shy or introverted among us.
Our discomfort eventually encourages us to get out, to socialize, and to find a way to relate to others. In other words, loneliness forces us to make changes.
There is also an evolutionary aspect to the negative impacts of loneliness. If we didn’t suffer from being alone, the article also points out, how would we ever mate, reproduce, and build communities?
Citing Cambridge, Massachusetts psychiatrist, Richard Schwartz, we are alerted to the fine line we walk when loneliness strikes. Yes, it can eventually encourage us to “get back out there,” but it can also produce damaging effects.
“To the extent that loneliness, like pain, triggers us to do something to set it right, it is very adaptive,” says Dr. Schwartz. “But there is this other quality about loneliness that seems to become circular and lead to more and more withdrawal, and that is extremely maladaptive.”
The article also notes the potential dangers of an excess of American “self-sufficiency,” and demographic changes that are leading to what is referred to as a loneliness “epidemic.”
… Research has shown that chronic loneliness is rising in the United States… The Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal project sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, suggests that more than a quarter of Americans are lonely, a percentage that has increased by three to seven points over the past two decades. In 2015, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy characterized loneliness and social isolation as an “epidemic.”
Point taken. Isn’t this why so many of us “post-Empty Nest” and “post-marriage” are seeking alternative ways to live together? Alternative ways to create community? But as we age, is it — will it be — enough?
When I’m busy with purposeful activity (and when my mind is occupied), whether or not I’m socializing is less important. For that matter, whether or not I’m comfortable in my surroundings is also less of a concern. And I don’t experience what others might as isolation — certainly not as easily — which isn’t to say that I don’t periodically suffer from both isolation and loneliness, as do we all.
I recognize that if we are starting out on our own, as was my son, loneliness is part of the picture. If we are starting over on our own, depending on circumstances, loneliness is again part of the picture. We can — and do — adapt.
Of course, we may find ourselves in the company of others and still feel painfully lonely. If you’ve ever stayed too long in a failing relationship, or spent years in an empty marriage — a marriage in which there’s no emotional intimacy, no physical affection, and little more than small talk — you certainly know what I mean.
I welcome your thoughts.
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